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Age disparity in sexual relationships refers to sexual relations between people with a significant difference in age. Whether these relationships are accepted and the question of what counts as a significant difference in age has varied over time and varies over cultures, different legal systems, and different ethical systems. It often depends on differing attitudes towards perceived social and economic differences between age groups and how consent is viewed, and sometimes whether or not the relationship is part of a spiritual or legal marriage.
Relationships with age disparity of all kinds have been observed with both men and women as the older or younger partner. In various cultures, older men and younger women often seek one another for sexual or marital relationships. Older women sometimes date younger men as well, and in both cases wealth and physical attractiveness are often relevant.
On average in Europe, most men marry women around three years younger than themselves. A study released in 2003 by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics concluded that the proportion of women in England and Wales marrying younger men rose from 15% to 26% between 1963 and 1998. The study also showed a higher divorce rate as the age difference rose when the woman was older and a lower divorce rate as the age difference rose when the man was older.
In August 2010, Dr. Michael Dunn of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff completed and released the results of a study on age disparity in dating. Dr. Dunn concluded that "Not once across all ages and countries...did females show a preference for males significantly younger than male preferences for females" and that there was a "consistent cross-cultural preference by women for at least same-age or significantly older men." A 2003 AARP study had previously brought results that 34% of women over 39 years old were dating younger men.
The advantages and pitfalls of sexual relationships between people of very different ages provides fuel for many literary works, but these relationships are rarely depicted in a favorable light. When a young woman seeks out an older man, her desire for guidance and support is often depicted as tragically naive. In George Eliot's Middlemarch, for example, Dorothea Brooke marries the distinguished scholar Casaubon for high-minded reasons. In a time when women in England were barred from seeking higher education, Dorothea's only option is to marry a man who can educate her at home, but her desire for knowledge and wisdom is frustrated by Edward Casaubon's suspicious and selfish nature. He allows Dorothea to serve as his assistant but is too timid and narrow-minded to share her genuine passion for new ideas. Discovering her elderly husband's flaws too late, Dorothea is only released by his death to remarry, this time for love.
In the novel Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, the dashing rake Tom Jones is depicted as being deeply in love with a girl his own age, the pure and virginal Sophia Western. But Tom's love for Sophia is nearly thwarted by the selfish desires of Lady Bellaston, a much older woman who takes Tom as a lover. Because Tom is penniless and Lady Bellaston is very wealthy, she holds much of the power in the relationship. After their initial sexual encounter, she provides Tom with ample money and a new wardrobe, favors which he gratefully accepts. Yet Fielding presents the older woman as selfish, spiteful and cruel, implying that any older woman who desires a younger man must be acting from sinister motives. Conversely, Tom's willingness to sleep with Lady Bellaston, and even accept presents from her, is hardly condemned by the author at all.
In a Brown University study, it has been noted that the social structure of a country determines the age difference between spouses more than any other factor. One of the concerns of relationships with age disparities in some cultures is a perceived difference between people of different age ranges. These differences may be sexual, financial or social in nature. Gender roles may complicate this even further. Socially, a society with a difference in wealth distribution between older and younger people that may affect the dynamics of the relationship. Sexually, it is noted that older people tend to have lower sex drives. Legally, there is the issue of consent, where minors (see "Age of consent") are considered unable to consent to a relationship.
On average humans reach the age of reproduction starting at ages 11–14 for girls and 12-16 for boys. For women the average age of menopause is in their late forties and early fifties, and before that infertility is known to increase with age. While men do not necessarily become sterile with age, infertility does go up with age.
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The age disparity between two partners is typically met with some disdain in industrialized nations, and various derogatory terms for participants have arisen in the vernacular.
In English-speaking countries, where financial disparity, and an implicit "money-for-companionship" exchange, is perceived as central to the relationship, the elder of the two partners (perceived as the richer) is often called a "sugar daddy" or "sugar momma" depending on gender. The younger of the two is similarly called the "sugar baby". In extreme cases, a person who marries into an extremely wealthy family can be labelled a "gold digger", especially in cases where the wealthy partner is of extreme age and/or poor health; this term often describes women but can be applied to either gender.
An attractive younger woman pursued by a wealthy man who is perceived as wanting her only for her looks may be called a "trophy wife". The opposite term "trophy husband" does not have an agreed upon use, but is becoming more common in usage: some will use the term to refer to the attractive stay-at-home husband of a much more famous woman; whereas some will use it to refer to the husband of a "trophy wife", as he is her trophy due to the wealth and prestige he brings her. In the latter case, the term "trophy" is broadened to include any substantial difference in power originating from physical looks, wealth and/or status.
It should be noted that the "trophy" label is often been perceived as objectifying the partner, with or without the partner's implicit consent.
Where the primary perceived reason for a relationship with a significant age difference is sexual, many gender-specific terms have become popular in English-speaking cultures. A woman who pursues younger men is a "cougar" or "puma", and a man in a relationship with an older woman is often called a "toyboy", "boytoy" or "cub". In reverse, the terms "rhino", "trout" and "manther" (a play on the "panther" term for women) are generally used to label an older man pursuing younger women, and the younger woman in such a relationship may be called a "kitten" or "panther." If the woman is extremely young (just over, or possibly under, the legal age of consent), the man may be labelled a "cradle-robber". An older term for any licentious or lascivious man is a "lecher", and that term and its shortening of "lech" have become common to describe an old man who makes passes at much younger women, especially caretakers and in other cases where the advances are unwanted.
While often intended to be derogatory, some of these terms are often used by the participants in the relationship to describe themselves and each other. Some are viewed as mildly self-deprecating, others as neutral or even complimentary terms, much like individuals stereotypically referred to as "nerds", "geeks" or "jocks" have often come to "own" those terms as a source of pride in their identity. When the attraction between two people of significantly different ages seems genuinely romantic, the terms are often used playfully, especially as one or the other of the partners "ages in" to a particular term.
The "never date anyone under half your age plus seven" rule is a rule of thumb used by some in the American culture to judge whether the age difference in an intimate relationship is socially acceptable. The rule existed as early as 1951, when it appeared in the play The Moon is Blue by F. Hugh Herbert, and subsequently in the 1953 Otto Preminger film of the play.